Got your heavy boots? Artic jacket? Shovels, heaters and emergency supplies? Is your anti-freeze good to -35o Fahrenheit? Are you ready?
We appear to be heading into another Combo Winter.
I remember the first one. I remember playing back then. Short, stupid games. Mulligan for the combo, mulligan for the answer: show your card – who got what they needed? Sort of like draw poker without bidding. Then the five to ten minutes of one player watching the other to see if they made a mistake, since no mistakes equaled game over.
Two weekends ago, a local store ran an Extended Grand Prix Trial. I stayed home and put up drywall.
I used to love Extended. I have written more articles on Extended than any other (sanctioned) format. I play Limited, I like T2, but I have always loved Extended. At least, until now I have. The sheer power of the Tier I combo decks makes it futile to play any original decks. In a format where a turn one Isochron Scepter imprinted with Counterspell may be too slow, other non-combo decks have very little chance.
What is really weird is that combo winter effects are happening in multiplayer, too. At the local store that hosts a casual night, we play a lot of Emperor, Chaos, Two-Headed Giant and so forth. A lot of kids show up with favorite decks, a ton of theme decks and interesting stuff in general. However, I played against more combo decks last time than anything else. Power Conduit/Mercadian Scepter, Free Spell/Isochron Scepter imprinting Brain Freeze, Infinite mana/Ambassador Laquatus, and so forth.
Most of these decks are reasonably tuned towards going off, but not to protecting the combo. They are not unstoppable. The problem is that they are not much fun to play against either.
Here’s a typical example. I’m playing against a decent player that wants to try out his new decks one on one. I have a bunch of decks with me – some multiplayer control decks, some utility decks, and some Extended and T2 decks. He has a new Power Conduit deck that goes off pretty consistently turn 5 or so.
I can crush him with my Extended Rock deck I’ve tuned for the upcoming PTQs. Duress, Cabal Therapy, lots of maindeck artifact kill – I can prevent him from ever getting the combo off, and kill him with random creatures pretty easily. We play two games, but a tuned PTQ deck designed to fight Tinker and Mana-Belcher crushes slower artifact-based combo decks. It’s obvious this matchup is totally one-sided, so I change decks.
Next, I grab a control deck. Either I have counters and Disenchants and I win, or I don’t and lose. It is literally mulligan to the win. Fun, fun. Time for a new deck.
I grab a multiplayer utility deck, built around Soul Foundry. Nothing special, but I enjoy playing it. Game one, I play Forest, Birds of Paradise, and turn 2 Taiga, Viashino Heretic. That’s game for him. He has no answer to something that can kill an artifact a turn at instant speed. (Yes, he should, but that’s an issue for later.)
The next game really summed up the problems with combo, either in casual play or tournament Magic. My opening hand had Forest, Bird, Taiga, Yavimaya Elder, Wall of Blossoms, Soul Foundry – and Living Wish. I have a Viashino Heretic in the Sideboard. If I Wish for the Heretic, I’ll kill the Scepter whenever he gets it into play and I just win. His deck has no answer to Heretic. I decide to try playing a more interesting game, get something else, and he goes off turn 5. I lose. At that point, I have a great board position, with a Scroll Rack and Soul Foundry imprinted with an Elder giving me massive card advantage, but it doesn’t matter since I never get another turn. Turn 3 I play Heretic, and I win, or I don’t, and I lose on Turn 5 is not an exciting and interactive game.
Every deck I have with me – and I have about a dozen along – has the same problem. It either has an answer, so it wins easily, or it doesn’t and loses. The problem isn’t with my decks, it is with the combo deck my opponent is playing. It does nothing until it wins, leaving no room for interaction. With time, he’ll learn to include answers to the Heretic, and the games will be slightly more entertaining, but not a lot.
Having played and played against a lot of Bargain, Replenish, Academy, Trix and High Tide, I can confidently say that these matches are more like Magic: the Puzzling articles than an interactive game. A turn or two into the game, your thoughts consist of”how do I win the game now, and what do I have to play around?” or”how can I prevent that?” The type of considerations in a normal game – tempo, threat density, board position, over-extension, etc. simply don’t apply.
This is from an old Jamie Wakefield article on Combo Winter. He is quoting another player’s tourney report, but doesn’t identify the source.
“I went first. I had a Ritual, 1-drop, and Hatred, but I blew the Ritual on turn 1 anyway. The reason is that I cast two Blood Pets and a zombie, so I could set up a turn 3 kill either way. Since I knew Dave was playing Replenish, I felt that a turn 3 kill with more clocks would inhibit his Bargain drawing ability in a more efficient manner. Well anyway, I top-decked either a second Ritual or a Crystal Vein, so I turn 2 killed Dave anyway.
So to make a long story short, I have a turn 2 kill, another turn 2 kill, and a turn 3 kill, but lose anyway. Mise well go second, am I right?”
How different is that from the current environment? Here’s an excerpt from Yann Hamon article on the Clock:
“Round 3: Simone Carboni, Goblins with Charbelcher
There aren’t a lot of things to say about this match. I won the die roll, and quietly killed him on turn 4 in the first game, just like in our playtest games (without Food Chain, Goblins decks often have a lethal one-turn delay against The Clock). In the second game, he didn’t draw his sideboard, and even though he played and had a turn 4 kill in hand, I just killed him a turn before.”
By contrast, here are two excerpts from a tourney report I wrote during the Extended season the year after combo winter. There is a lot more interaction and a lot more going on in these two matches than in the combo matches described above.
From my article on the Dojo:
Round 3: Julio Fontanez, G/B Survival
I won the roll and drew an interesting hand: Swamp, 2 Wastelands, Negator, Duress, some green stuff like Wall of Roots and Spike Feeder – no Forests. Really good, provided I drew a Forest or my opponent was playing something that can’t handle a turn 3 Negator, but really bad if Julio was playing Sligh. I had no idea what he was playing, but decided to keep. I Duressed him and saw Swamp, Wasteland, Phyrexian Plaguelord, Wall of Roots, Survival, etc. [took Survival] Not only was it a mirror match, but he had a nearly identical hand! However, I had two big advantages. First, I had a Negator with mana to cast it while his fatty cost 5 mana. Second, he had even less land than I did.
I dropped the Negator turn 3, then wasted his Wasteland and the Bayou he had topdecked on turn 4. We both got Survival down, but I got it first and Survivaled for my Lyrist and killed his. I beat with the Negator a few times, killing Walls and dropping his life total by 10. Then he finally got enough mana to play the Plaguelord, [by which time he had] killed my Survival. We were stalled for a couple turns. Then I drew a fourth land, cast Krovikan Horror and attacked with my Negator, leaving one mana free. He blocked with the Plaguelord, as expected, then sacrificed a Wall of Roots and a mana bird to make my Negator a 3/3, also as expected. I asked if he had other effects, or if damage was on the stack. When he agreed it was, I used Krovikan to throw the Negator at the Plaguelord. This caught him by surprise and he never recovered from this three for one. That’s the benefit of casual play: I’ve done a lot weirder things with Krovikan Horror and the stack, but I’ll save those for another article.
Round 6 – Nathan Rush with Oath
Game 2 was more interesting. I got in some beats, then stalled. He had Sylvan going, and Oath of Druids brought forth a Morphling. The second time he activated Oath he got the Weaver, but I cast an Ebony Charm and removed one Blessing and some random stuff in response. He stopped activating Oath after that. He eventually put three spike counters on the Morphling and began flying over for 6 a turn – all with mana to protect the Morphling. I blocked with mana birds which I then threw at him with the Krovikan Horror. Finally, we were both at 6 life and it looked like I had to topdeck a Bird or Weaver to live. I drew Deranged Hermit, sighed, cast it and passed the turn. He decided not to Oath, gave Morphling flying and beat for 6. I asked him, as deadpan as possible, if damage was on the stack. He said yes. I cast Ebony Charm to drain him for 1. I went up to seven life, took the 6 damage – and I wasn’t dead! He looked at my Wall of Roots, Krovikan, 5 tapped land, brand-spanking-new Hermit and the 4 squirrels friends for a while, then at his dice showing 5 life – and he conceded. In general he played well, but I know he will spend a few days thinking”If only I had Oathed, or if only I had pumped Morphling one, I woulda made T8.” Tough way to lose, but an amazing way to win.
If you want to read the whole report, it can be found here.
Now, single examples never prove anything, but they do represent the differences between interactive and non-interactive formats. The games in the combo-based matches are short and boring. The others are interesting, featuring creature battles that could have gone either way.
The point is not that the games were decided by creatures, but that the games came down to strategic play, working for board position and laying subtle traps for the opponent. In combo on combo, or combo on anti-combo, the play is much less strategic. In those matchups, one player is trying to lay certain cards in a certain order, and the other is trying to prevent that from happening. What cards those are, and the order, are obvious and well-known to both players.
In some respects, the combo decks now are even worse than the Trix and Pande-Burst decks from a few years ago. Those decks packed Duress, Force of Will and similar cards to force the combo past opposition. They at least gave a semblance of playing an interactive game. The combos this season don’t do even that. Take the Twiddle–Mind’s Desire deck, for example. It has no disruption or counters of any kind. It is as close to a pure solitaire deck as you can get.
I don’t want to see combo winter come back. I love building combo decks, and design a lot of them, but I don’t really like playing the broken ones. The two biggest problems with combos dominating a format is that they shorten the games, which knocks out a lot of otherwise viable decktypes, and that they are frustrating to play (when you don’t get a broken draw) and to play against.
Combo decks are all about getting the God draw. The better-built combo decks have lots of God draws, or lots of ways of tutoring for the missing parts of the God draw. The problem is that it is never fun to lose to a God draw – since that usually means that you could have stabilized, and possibly played to a win a turn or two later, if only your opponent hadn’t had that draw. People hate losing to God draws. It’s frustrating, and people hate being frustrated.
At a one hundred person qualifier with a field of broken combo decks, ninety-nine people are going to go home having lost to the God draw once too often. That’s a lot of frustrated people.
People used to complain about Blue control decks. However, you can play around counterspells. There is an art and science about baiting counterspells, and knowing when to try to force through a threat, and which ones to try in which order. It could be frustrating when you could not draw all the counters out of an opponent’s hand, but it was highly interactive Magic. It got worse with aggro-control decks, like U/G Madness or ‘Tog, where the control decks had a significant clock or massive reset. Against those decks, you cannot spend turns baiting counters out of their hands, because they kill you. Turn two or three combo kill decks are even worse – you cannot play around them; you either have the card that wrecks them in hand, or you lose.
For the first part of the next Extended PTQ season, we are stuck with what we have. The combo decks (Tinker, The Clock, combo-goblins) will be there, and the decks tuned to beat those decks, if they exist. However, the DCI is likely to ban some cards for the second half of the season. Adrian Sullivan wrote a good article on one approach to banning – banning the fast mana. A second approach is to ban the cards that drive the combos. Both of these have advantages and disadvantages.
Banning The Fast Mana
This means banning Ancient Tomb, City of Traitors, Grim Monolith and Chrome Mox – all the cards that provide two or more mana on turn 1 without significant long-term disadvantages. Eliminating the fast mana slows the combos a turn or more, and allows counterspells and discard to have a reasonable influence. Tinker is less amazing if it can be countered, and that can happen when it is cast turn 3, instead of turns 1 and 2.
This approach to bannings does have a problem, however. Eliminating the fast mana will mean that counterspell-based control decks will come back to power. In the past, it was always possible to bait out counters and eventually run the opponent out of counter magic. However, Isochron Scepter means that the counterspell decks will never run out of counters. No playing around counters at that point. That is not good.
Banning The Broken Cards
The other option is to nail the cards that break the format. In general, I define breaking the format as having a disproportionate impact on the metagame. Broken cards force you to play those cards, or play against those cards, and this drives a number of otherwise good decks out of the environment.
In many cases, answers to the broken cards abound, but the problem is that if you play the answers, you can beat that deck, but cannot beat anything else. For example, you can probably beat speed Goblins with a deck with all the Fogs in the format, and just deck them. However, that strategy just loses to any other deck – even Goblins with Goblin Charbelcher. Another example might be a deck with Innocent Blood, Scrabbling Claws and all eight Edicts – which should beat Reanimator, but not much else.
Again, the problem is not that these decks cannot be beat, but that they force you to either play specific answers or lose. That really limits the format.
Here are the non-mana cards that I see as problems in Extended, right now.
For three mana (splashable mana at that), you can tutor and put something with a huge mana cost into play. This breaks so many cards that are not broken on their own – not if you have to pay the full mana price. Without Tinker, Mindslaver, Goblin Charbelcher, Platinum Angel and so forth are not such serious problems.
Being able to stack your deck with Goblins is not a massive problem – until you add cards like Food Chain and Goblin Charbelcher to the mix. Recruiter is close to broken even without those cards… mixing the Recruiter with Goblin Ringleader, Goblin Warchief and Goblin Piledriver makes an awfully good cocktail.
Another card that breaks Charbelcher. This card is not broken on its own, but I would like to see it gone because it is useless outside of combo decks. Sure, in theory it can cut improve your draws by cutting lands, once you get enough, but no serious deck has ever played it for that reason. It is in the same category as Donate – either just plain bad, or part of a broken combo. Banning Mana Severance would kill just one deck, without harming others. However, getting rid of Tinker may do in that deck all by itself.
All the Cards That Get 8+ Mana Cards Into Play on Turn 2 or 3
Tinker is in this boat, but so are Exhume and Reanimate. Volrath’s Shapeshifter is, too, but it is not broken without a method of finding cards, like Survival of the Fittest. Oath of Druids does this – especially when it turns up a Cognivore. Hermit Druid would also be on my list of cards to ban. It fits several categories. It is only good in a combo deck, and it can put a lethal fatty into play on turn 2.
The problem with banning just the broken cards is that the explosive draws from an artifact mana deck are still possible – and if those draws are combined with Stroke of Genius, the deck could still be a problem. (Note: I’m not sure – I haven’t playtested a Tinkerless Tinker deck.) Moreover, if the fast mana is still there, they may just power next round of broken combo decks, instead of fixing the format.
So, if I ran the DCI, here’s what I would ban:
- Grim Monolith
- Ancient Tomb
- Goblin Recruiter
- Mana Severance
- Volrath’s Shapeshifter
- Isochron Scepter (I really like the Scepter/Oath decks, post banning)
- Hermit Druid or Exhume+Reanimate+Life/Death (the Druid is simpler.)
I would bring back Survival of the Fittest, since it is not as broken without the Shapeshifter. I would also consider banning Hatred and bringing back Dark Ritual, but I would have to think about that. Ritual would bring back Suicide Black, without the Hatred combo, but it might also power out some problems. Ritual is a lucky draw card.
Good thing I don’t run the DCI.
Fixing the format in sanctioned Extended is tough. Fixing the format during casual play is a bit easier.
In multiplayer games, the combo decks are often self-correcting. If the table sees it a second time, they can identify the threat, and kill the combo parts – or the player – before the combo goes off. If the combo is too good, and goes off before the other players can stop it, then you can usually rely on peer pressure. If a deck was too good, we would move the brownies away from that player, until he or she changed decks.
Another option is to play hosers. Since most of the combo decks (other than mine) are based on artifacts, and don’t have methods of protecting those artifacts, I have started to play more Viashino Heretics and Disenchant effects maindeck. In more extreme situations, I might play Null Brooch or Shatterstorm, but since that can hurt other, non-combo players in multiplayer games, I try to avoid something that drastic. I want to punish the combo players, not those who have not gone over to the dark side of Magic.
As a last resort, we may set up a combo table, pushed against the wall in the corner. The pure combo deck players can sit there, alone, and goldfish to their hearts content. [Whoa, harsh. – Knut]
I put the Twiddle deck together recently, and have played some games with it. The more I play with it, the more I dislike it, and the format it symbolizes. It works, but it is completely non-interactive. I expect I will playtest it, to learn how it works and how to beat it, but that playtesting will be all goldfishing. About the only thing playing an opponent could teach you is how to keep Twiddling with a Naturalize targeting the Gilded Lotus on the stack. That, and how annoyed your playtest partners can get when you basically ignore them game after game.
In prepping for this article, I read a lot of old reports from combo winter and other Extended formats. After reading those, I put a few old decks together – GB Survival, Maher Oath, even an updated Secret Force – and played them in casual games. Secret Force is not a multiplayer powerhouse, but they are all fun decks. They also all pack answers to combo decks of all flavors. Even Secret Force packs answers, as it can kill lands, artifacts, and enchantments quite well.
I also skimmed through my archives. It seemed fairly ironic to write a diatribe against combo decks, considering that the vast majority of the decks I have written are combo decks. Generally, those decks are synergistic, and include paths to victory other than the combos. The combos are thrown in as last resorts, or as fun tricks. Still, there are a lot of combos, but in a hundred plus articles, many with multiple decklists, that is probably unavoidable. An article about an original combo, even a marginal one, is more interesting than describing another build of multiplayer Elves.
Which doesn’t change the fact that I write about a lot of combos.
This raises the age-old question”Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?”
To which I reply.”Yup – I sure am.”